By Jennifer Simonson
Peru’s biggest tourist draw is the fifteenth century lost Inca city in the clouds—Machu Picchu. This ancient city, thought to be the vacation palace of the Incan Emperor Pachacutec, was abandoned after the Spanish defeated the Incan Empire in 1523. Hidden by rugged Andean mountaintops deep in the Amazon jungle, the settlement remained “lost” for more than three centuries until American professor Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911.
Today more than one million tourists travel through Cusco, the largest city in the Sacred Valley, to visit the site recently deemed one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Tourism is the fastest growing segment of Peru’s economy, growing almost 25 percent annually for the past few years. With so many options to choose from, companies incorporating sustainability, local products and social responsibility into their business practices can stand out from the noise.
A Responsible Tour Company: Kuoda Travel
Tour companies offering tours of Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are a dime a dozen. Few, however, give back to local communities as much as Cusco-based Kuoda Travel. In addition to typical tours, Kuoda offers customized cultural experiences for those seeking to learn more about the people, the food and the customs of Peru.
A popular experience is an afternoon in a small Andean Indian village off the Sacred Valley’s beaten path where locals live much like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Women of this area are master weavers using pre-Inca techniques to create exquisite textiles. They walk tourists through the process of making textiles, including washing the llamas fur, spinning the fur into threads, and creating dye with indigenous plants.
In this same village Kuoda started the Andean Children’s Learning Center, an afterschool program in 2007 to supplement public education. Local schools are only open for half a day and cannot afford to supply the students with anything more than pencil and paper. Kuoda donates markers, paints, music instruments, art supplies, books, computers and the teachers for the afterschool classes. Today the learning center consists of two classrooms in the center of town for completing homework and gaining computer literacy. When Kuoda first opened the learning center, one student from the area had gone on to university. Since then, 42 students in the program have attended university.
Knowing how important computer education is in today’s world, Kuoda founder Mery Calderon also started a traveling computer class. Every five months Kuoda workers set up 116 computers in four rural communities to provide free computer literacy classes. About 60 children and adults in each location learn computer basics such as typing, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and internet browsing. Calderon hopes to introduce graphic design and robotics next year for more advanced students.
“We just want to give them the tools to do what they want,” said Calderon. “You never know where the next Picasso will come from.”
A Responsible Trek to Machu Picchu: Mountain Lodges of Peru
For the more adventurous types who would be bored with the four-hour train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu, trekking along old Inca trails offers an unforgettable experience. The terrain and altitude at one point reach almost 14,000 feet, and make the 3-to-5 day trek challenging. However, the glacier mountain peaks, lush cloud forest, sub-tropical jungle landscapes and Inca ruins make all the hard work and shortness of breath worth it.
As with most things tourism in Peru, representatives from tour companies can be found swarming in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas trying to sign up tourists for the trek. For those who want to book with a socially responsible company, Mountain Lodges of Peru is a great option.
In 2006 Mountain Lodges of Peru sponsored the creation of Yanapana Peru, a sustainable community development nonprofit committed to reducing extreme poverty in the Andean Highlands. The group funds training programs for local entrepreneurs, nutrition programs at local schools and medical prevention, detection and treatment programs.
Mountain Lodges of Peru has also partnered with the local Huacahuasi community, making them active investors in local development projects. The recently-opened Huacahuasi Lodge was built on community-owned land and is staffed by highly-trained community residents.
A Responsible Way To Stay: Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel
Aguas Calientes, or Machupicchu, is the closest town to Machu Picchu. It is a quaint town at the bottom of a deep gorge surrounded by stone cliffs and a towering cloud forest. From Cusco it is a four-hour train ride and a perfect location to spend the night for those who want a head start on a day at Machu Picchu.
Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel is the closest hotel to the UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu. Nestled at the bottom of the site along the banks of the Vilcanota River, it is an hour walk or a 20-minute bus ride to the entrance of the national treasure. The five-star hotel has made Conde Nast’s top 10 hotels in South America. As an extra bonus, the hotel goes out of its way make an effort to be sustainable.
Locally sourced ingredients are the backbone of the hotel restaurant’s menu. With the Sacred Valley so close, many of the vegetables and fruit used in the dishes are grown less than 20 miles away. Its signature dish, and the national dish of Peru, ceviche is made with trout from nearby Lake Titicaca—the world’s highest lake—and with potatoes, corn and onions grown in the nearby Sacred Valley.
Sumaq also offers guests an inside look into Andean culture with Peruvian cooking classes, traditional ceremonies such as the “Payment to Mother Earth: Pachamama” and the Andean marriage “Arac Masin” ceremonies.
The Rainforest Alliance certifies Sumaq with a 93 percent sustainability performance score. Each year Sumaq participates in "Restaurants Against Malnutrition," which focuses on nutritional education and improvement of basic food support in nearby villages.
How Pick a Company:
Most travel companies investing in socially responsible practices will have a summary of those practices on their website. Another good indicator of a responsible Peruvian travel company is if it is a part of the Peruvian Association of Adventure Tourism and Ecotourism (APTAE), a nonprofit that encourages social and environmental responsibility adventure tourism. Its members must follow a code of ethics that ensure they follow sustainability criteria that advocates responsible tourism.
Responsible Clothes To Pack: Ex-Officio
Ex-Officio designs clothes with travelers in mind. From their fast-drying, lightweight and odor-reducing Give-N-Go underwear to the versatile, insect-repelling BugsAway Lumen Hoody their collections are designed with travelers in mind. Most of their clothing is made with quick-drying sustainable fabrics with bug or sun protection, perfect for hiking through the Peruvian jungle.
Ex-Officio work with Medical Teams International providing disaster relief, humanitarian aid, and holistic development in the form of medical and dental care to people in need. They also support World Concern, an organization that provides programs for disaster response, clean water, education, farming, child protection, entrepreneurship, and health. World Concern focuses on creating lasting, sustainable change and hope in the communities they serve.
Alternative Apparel is a certified green clothing line that uses eco- and sustainable fabrics, non-toxic dyes and recycled materials. Clothing is made in factories that are in accordance
with the Fair Labor Association Workplace Code of Conduct Their lightweight tops layer perfectly under a Burnout Eco-Fleece Hoodie or Terry Quilted Bomber Jacket to bundle up after the nighttime temperatures dip.
Jennifer Simonson is a freelance writer and lover of Latin American travel, the outdoors, social responsibly companies and food. Especially food. She started her career as a newspaper reporter in Colorado in 2001, then moved to Austin in 2005 to start a freelancing career. Her favorite part of the job is meeting and spending time with people from all over the world.
When she is not writing, she is working on her side project Esperanza Market, an online store that sells bags handmade in Nicaragua. For every bag sold, the market donates a solar-powered light to a child who lives without electricity. Her goal is to donate solar lamps to the every child living in the dark in Nicaragua.